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The End, Part III

Not exactly a year ago, but last year on Good Friday, I was given my initial diagnosis of breast cancer. Since then I’ve become a cyborg, lost my hair, had three surgeries (lymph node biopsy, mediport installation, and lumpectomy for those keeping score at home), endured weeks of chemo and radiation, moved back in with my parents, broke up with my boyfriend, and started working as a paralegal. It has not been a great year, on the whole. But things have started to pick up.

To the best of my knowledge, I am now cancer-free. I have a Master’s Degree. I have a sweet efficiency apartment with robin’s egg blue walls in what seems to be a very pleasant town. And I have Joshua back, which makes everything I’ve gone through worth it, as far as I’m concerned.

My future is uncertain – although the cancer seems to be gone, it could always come back. And after much thought, I came to the realization that whether I live for five more years or for fifty, I want to spend those years by Joshua’s side. I want to spend them helping people, learning things, and being in the world, not just my head. I think that I can do this by becoming a librarian, and I have taken the first baby steps down that path.

For a while there, I thought I’d lost everything. But of course I hadn’t. And although the life I’m starting to build is very different from the life I had, and from the life I thought I’d have, I think it will be a good one.

So that is the end of my cancer story. Thank you for reading. Over and out.

Not the end.

Some time ago – not long after my last post, actually – I made a decision to get my act together and stop wallowing. I went back to studying German and applying for jobs. I finished and submitted my last paper. The women at my cancer support group emphasized the importance of getting back to one’s routine after cancer – this was not an option for me. They talked about the importance of living life to the fullest – but I didn’t feel that I had any life left. The things that used to define my life were back in Indiana, and there is no going back to them.

The group moderator suggested I talk to a social worker who specializes in helping women who have had breast cancer. “I have no life any more,” I told the social worker. “But you do,” she pointed out. “You have friends, even if they aren’t here. You have your family. You have a paper to write and studying to do.” So even though God knows it’s not enough, I’m trying to focus on that.

In the last few weeks I have applied for jobs as a receptionist, a hotel desk clerk, a restroom attendant, a classroom assistant, among other things. At the moment, I am working on document review at my mother’s law firm, going through hundreds of thousands of emails looking for material pertaining to the case amid the Monica Lewinsky forwards and alarmingly personal notes. It’s very boring but it’s better than nothing. All of this is better than nothing. And it seems like those really are the options.

End

Yesterday was my last day of radiation. For the first time, I talked to the other people in the waiting room, most of whom were there for breast cancer – a young woman, maybe 30; a woman in her 40s whose husband came with her every day, and an older woman, maybe in her early sixties, who was very enthusiastic about Scientology. “I just wish I’d found it earlier,” she said ruefully, “and then maybe I wouldn’t be here.”

So.

They all wished me luck, as did the technicians I’ve gotten to know ever so slightly over the last seven weeks. I met with one of the nurses, who gave me a parting gift – a fleece blanket, a diploma, a t-shirt that doesn’t say “I survived breast cancer and all I got was this lousy t-shirt,” even though it clearly should. There was a piece of hard candy with a pink ribbon on it, and a little pink bear I put on my dashboard.

Today I started Tamoxifen, which I will take for the next five years; it can cause hair thinning and hot flashes, but will probably not be a huge deal. Dr Levine gave me the option of also shutting down my ovaries, though he wasn’t enthusiastic. It appeals to me because it is extreme; I didn’t have my breasts cut off, so I feel I am due for something a little edgy. But all the same I probably won’t do it. (I’m getting a second opinion from my Indiana oncologist anyway.)

I know I ought to be really happy about finishing radiation, but instead all I seem to feel is blank. I am done, but I cannot yet return to my life. It’s not clear what there is to return to; my Indiana life is gone for good, my New York life hasn’t yet begun. I am ambivalent about it anyway. I apply for jobs; I play with the cats. Soon it will be Christmas.

The other day, Tuesday I guess, I started to cry during my treatment. It’s so quick, radiation, that I only got two or three tears out before the techs came back in and I had to lie and say my eyes were watering because of allergies, which they pretended to believe. What I was thinking was, I no longer have any reason to ever get out of bed in the mornings, apart from the eventual need to use the bathroom. I tell myself to cut out the self-pity, but the fact remains that there is nothing. Everything that was my life is gone, and I don’t know what is next.

This morning I took my first Tamoxifen – the first of 1,825. I’m not good at remembering to take pills, but by the time I’m done with these – when I’m 29, for Heaven’s sake – I imagine I’ll be a pro.

Birthday

The thing about a birthday is that one tends to view it in isolation, as though it stood for the whole year, or where one is in life in general, or something. As my days go, today was fine – I didn’t get any parking tickets, I ran, I worked on my comic book, I watched some Buffy, I had a nice dinner with my parents. As birthdays go, it wasn’t my worst.

Next year I’ll be twenty-five, and I’ll live in New York and people I know who aren’t my parents will buy me drinks. Twenty-four will probably be okay. And God knows it won’t last forever.

An interesting article on mastectomies and their effects on women’s sexuality. I don’t really see the point of having implants without nipples. I don’t mean that women who get mastectomies should opt to have their nipples spared, since cancer can develop there and that would defeat the whole purpose. But without nipples, you’d look like a Barbie. It would look more disturbing, I think, than just having scars. But I suppose that’s really a matter of taste.

The article isn’t really about that, of course – that’s just my fixation on mastectomies showing. Really what the article is about is, why don’t the whitecoats prepare women for the impact their treatment will have on their sexuality? In my case, it is probably because I almost never see doctors without my parents in the room. And, of course, I’m not married. Doctors have talked to me about the possibility of someday getting pregnant (I probably can) and breastfeeding (probably not with the right breast, but Edge says the left will compensate). But I’ll be on Tamoxifen for five years – until I’m 28 – and I have no idea yet how that will effect me.

Every day at 11:20 I go to Roswell, park in the special parking lot, scan the bar code on my Roswell ID card, and change into a “breast gown” in one of several flattering shades of teal. (A breast gown is a hospital gown that wraps around, so neither your back nor your front is exposed, and it doesn’t need to be tied.) I poke my head in at Machine 1 to tell them I’m there, and then sometimes they send me to read a 2006 issue of Seventeen or the issue of Self with Kelly Clarkson on the cover. (The Self is especially annoying because it has a long article on women who are worried that they may some day get breast cancer. My heart bleeds for them almost as much as for the woman who wrote in to the Buffalo News the other day with a story about having to get a biopsy one time, which turned out to be a false alarm. To celebrate, she bought a $400 purse.)

Where was I? Right, so before long they call me in, and I lie down on the hard metal table. They line my tattoos up with lasers to make sure I’m correctly positioned, then they leave the room. (This is a two-to-four person job, and it can feel a little bit like an alien abduction, although they are all very nice.) Usually there is classic rock playing, and there’s a large picture of a craggy shoreline on the ceiling. The machine does its thing, and a minute later the techs come back in and we’re done.

It’s pretty dull, and at this point I do it on autopilot. So far I haven’t had any real side effects, though my skin there is starting to get a little darker. It doesn’t hurt. It’s much less exciting than chemo.

Recently my hard drive melted, so I’m less wired than I’d prefer. (I’m typing this on my dad’s laptop.) You might think that after having cancer, things like computer trouble would just roll off my back. It’s just a thing, after all. That’s not how I react. Nowadays every new bad thing that happens, no matter how trivial, is liable to plunge me into the deepest despair. “First cancer, then loneliness and exile, and now this! Truly I cannot go on.” Of course, so much effort has been made to ensure my continued existence that I have to go on, no matter how tedious everything seems. I just have to make the best of it.

And speaking of making the best of things, behold my Halloween costume! Can you guess what I am?

Halloween 007

Radiation

Started radiation yesterday – it’s exciting, I guess, insofar as it’s the last really time-consuming phase of treatment. (After this it’s just seven more months or so of Herceptin and five years of Tamoxifen, which I think is just a pill.) The radiation department is my favorite place in Roswell because it is so efficient – yesterday I was in and out in 19 minutes, which includes changing and waiting for my turn on the machine. Also they gave me my first ever tattoos: two tiny dots, one on my sternum, one on my side. (They use the tattoos to line me up in the machine.)

It doesn’t hurt, although over the long term it sometimes causes burns. It’s kind of a drag to have to go to Roswell five days a week, but that’s the price you pay to keep your breasts. They’d better make it worth my while.

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